Look Who's Investing Now

William Macaulay, Chair & CEO of First Reserve Corporation, City College of New York class of 1966, and Linda Macaulay, a noted ornithologist; with alumni fundraisers: (rear) George Cermák, Baruch College 2005, Taconic Capital Advisors; Sophie Muller, Lehman College 2007, Ph.D. candidate, History, CUNY Graduate Center; (at table) Ryan Meltzer, Baruch College 2007, Lehman Brothers; Reshma Shah, City College 2008, St. John’s Law School; Claudio Simpkins, City College 2006, Harvard Law School 2009, Macaulay Honors College’s first Harry S. Truman Scholar.


As more CUNY students win highly competitive academic awards, many recent graduates are beginning to build on the generosity of past donors and philanthropists.

"There is a continuing commitment that increasing numbers of our alumni and donors and community leaders have to the success of the University," Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said. "And the support that our students receive from government and foundations underlines the quality of education that our talented students receive."

One of the many foundations that have supported CUNY students is the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which assists exceptional students with difficult financial circumstances. Since 2002, six CUNY students have won its coveted scholarships, and one of them, Yeshey Pelzom, an undergraduate award recipient, recently received the award for the second time for graduate study. The scholarships provide up to $60,000 for undergraduate study and as much as $300,000 for graduate work.

As a political refugee from Bhutan, Pelzom, 36, spent 10 years in Nepal before coming to the United States in 2000. She won her Cooke transfer scholarship when she was a student at LaGuardia Community College, which she used to earn a bachelor's degree with honors at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta.

Her biggest challenge so far has been culturally balancing her roles as a student, wife and mother. "Although my thoughts are no longer limited to what I should cook for the next meal or if my husband and son have clean socks, many times I find myself having to overcome the social stigma of being a married woman going to college. Being a student of English literature does not help."

Undaunted, Yeshey has found English literature to be not only liberating but also empowering. "I have succeeded in making myself a role model to my fellow immigrants, and I have become the first woman in my community to go to college."

Although Yeshey has not decided where she will attend graduate school, she eventually plans to become a professor and an advocate for human rights. Yeshey is also a recipient of a Phi Theta Kappa scholarship, the Janef Newman Preston Prize for Fiction, and the George Groman Award for Analytical Writing.

Another recent Cooke foundation recipient is Kojo Wallace, a 2008 Bronx Community College valedictorian who is now pursuing a bachelor's in biochemistry at Cornell University and intends to become a physician. Working with associate professor Charles Maliti at Bronx, he won a national student science competition for researching strains of rice that absorb heavy metals—a potential boon to countries like his native Ghana, where mining pollutes drinking water.

But it isn't just foundations that are supporting study by CUNY students. Alumni are helping as well.

Kojo Wallace (r.), first place, Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Conference, 2007; National Science Foundation and Phi Theta Kappa grants; interned, Brookhaven National Lab; 2008 Bronx Community College valedictorian. Professor Charles M. Maliti (l.), born in Kenya; M.A. Lehman College; M.Phil. and Ph.D., CUNY Graduate Center.

Take the Honors College, where a group of graduates have launched a fund-raising effort targeted at fellow alumni. Some of the drive's leaders have gone into the financial world, including George Cermák (Baruch 2005) of Taconic Capital Advisors, and Ryan Meltzer (Baruch 2007) of Lehman Brothers. Others are pursuing further study, like Sophie Muller (Lehman 2007), a Ph.D. candidate in history at the CUNY Graduate Center, and Reshma Shah (City College, 2008), a student at St. John's Law School.

They are following the lead of William Macaulay (City College 1966) and his wife, Linda, who donated $30 million to buy and transform a century-old Manhattan townhouse into a home for the CUNY Honors College, which draws students from seven campuses. Chancellor Goldstein had started the college to attract gifted students who were choosing elite private schools over CUNY. The initiative worked; for this fall's entering class, 3,829 top-notch students sought 360 spots.

"I think it's necessary for people to give back to the degree that they can," said Macaulay, who grew up with limited finances in the Bronx and fashioned First Reserve into the nation's largest energy-only private equity fund. "This is a state institution, but the state doesn't provide for everything."

And then there are public-spirited philanthropists who are not alumni. Take Elias Karmon, known as "Mr. Bronx." He endowed the Bronx CUNY Scholarship Fund, which supports financially needy students at the three Bronx colleges (Lehman College and Bronx and Hostos Community Colleges); preference goes to Bronx residents.

Karmon, now 98, graduated from New York University in 1932 at the height of the Depression. His clothing store lasted decades, and he made custom suits for judges, politicians and such Bronx residents as saxophonist Benny Carter and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. As the neighborhood became increasingly black, he was an advocate for African-Americans and was active in many organizations that assisted minorities.

One is Danyell Rodriguez, an early childhood education major at Bronx Community College who expects to graduate in 2009. "I am the first person in my family to go to college. Education was always a priority in my house because my mother wanted me to have a successful future.," she said.

Another Karmon beneficiary is music major Yesenia Ortiz, who expects to graduate from Lehman in 2009 and intends to pursue a doctorate, teach, and direct and write musicals. She taught dance, voice and drama for 10 years before enrolling at Hostos, where she earned her associate degree.

Several CUNY alumni have won National Science Foundation grants for graduate study. Mathematician Joseph Hirsh (Queens and CUNY Honors Colleges, 2008) is pursuing a doctorate at the CUNY Graduate Center where, as an undergraduate, he took 10 courses. He won the Queens Math Department's Thomas Budne Memorial Award for the highest-achieving junior.

Mitsy Chanel-Blot (Hunter 2007) is pursuing a doctorate in social anthropology in the African Diaspora Studies program at the University of Texas at Austin. This second-generation Haitian immigrant (her mother also graduated from Hunter) found that Haitian immigrants in Paris do not seem to identify as a homeland group as they do in the United States, and she is exploring why.

And with his NSF grant, Yisa Rumala (York 2006) is pursuing a doctorate in applied physics at the University of Michigan, which awarded him a Rackham Science Award (covering stipend, tuition and fees). A New York native, he spent most of his childhood in Nigeria, where he lived with relatives. As a McNair Scholar at York, he spent much of his senior year conducting experiments under the aegis of assistant professor Gregory Boutis.